‘Swept up in the excitement’: Cirque Mechanic brings joy and spectacle to Vilar Saturday
Special to the Daily
The romance of running away to join the circus resonates in the imaginations of many. For Chris Lashua, it became a force so compelling that he moved to Las Vegas, without a job, in hopes of performing with Cirque du Soleil.
Lashua, the founder and creative director of Cirque Mechanics, attended circus acts as a kid, but never imagined he’d be one — until he got a taste of performing.
As a teenager, the Boston native competed in freestyle BMX, throwing down his best tricks. At age 18, he turned pro, performing thrilling choreography paired with sound systems and MCs at exhibitions, fairs, festivals, bike shops and malls nationwide.
“It was my introduction to entertainment,” Lashua said. “We approached it in as much of a theatrical way as we could.”
In 1991, a casting director for Ringling Brothers wanted to showcase trick bicycling and invited Lashua to perform at a festival in China. There, he met one of the founders of Cirque du Soleil, who hired him to perform in Japan during the summer of 1992. Lashua had never seen theatrical circus acts with fog, lighting and stunning costumes — all sans animals.
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“When I saw what is contemporary circus, I absolutely dropped everything and ran away with the circus,” he said.
Though Cirque du Soleil didn’t have an opening for his act in its new Vegas show, he moved there anyway, searching for an inroad. For over a year, he worked as a stagehand, learning everything he could, from assisting with wardrobes to setting up tightropes. During that time, he built a German Wheel and developed his own act, training after shows until 3 a.m. — especially when one of the founders of Cirque du Soleil was around. He’d stand inside his 7-foot-diameter German Wheel like Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, dropping down like a coin and spiraling up again.
Then, he invented a contraption with rollers and placed it on a track so it resembled a railroad pump car on a large wheel. Friends and performers appreciated being able to see the actual mechanics in an act, rather than hiding cables and mechanisms with fog machines, for which the fantastical Cirque du Soleil had become famous. Lashua’s approach fused human circus acts with purposely visible mechanics.
“I was interested in that book, ‘The Way Things Work,’ opening up the clockwork and seeing the gears working inside,” he said.
After 1 1/2 years as a backstage hand, Lashua snagged a spot in Cirque du Soleil’s ninth stage show, “Quidam,” in 1996. He spent five years performing there, and by 2004, he had run away again, this time to start his own circus company: Cirque Mechanics.
His shows differ from Cirque du Soleil in that they’re smaller, more intimate and focused on pairing innovative machines with acrobats, dancers, jugglers and contortionists.
Comedic characters bring members on stage, and, in Saturday’s “42 ft —A Menagerie of Mechanical Marvels,” Russian Swing artists directly shoot toward the audience.
“We engage the audience so they feel the immediacy of the action,” he said. “That’s what makes theater and circus different from movies. It’s about the artists connecting with the audience.”
“42 ft— A Menagerie of Mechanical Marvels” revolves around the story of Justin, a man who, not unlike Lashua, becomes enamored with the circus and does whatever it takes to reach his dream.
The set pays homage to the history of the circus with its 42-foot-diameter space — or how big a typical circus ring has been for the last 250 years. The dimension originated when Englishman Philip Astley discovered that horses galloping inside a circle of that size provides an ideal platform for riders to stand at full gallop. Lashua and his artists celebrate the 250th anniversary of Astley’s circus through this current show.
Nine of the 11 performers are Americans, one is Mongolian and another is a Russian. Lashua says he attracts the highest caliber artists because he involves them in the creative process, “to really stretch and create in a way that larger companies cannot.” He said the performers — half of whom also formerly worked with Cirque du Soleil — take ownership in the show, allowing it to continually evolve.
“We just finished a five-week run on Broadway, and the show’s in tip-top shape,” he said.
The spectacle begins as Justin glimpses the circus from the backlot, looking into the backside of the tent. His view allows the audience to also experience the backstage of the circus as artists prepare, perform and ultimately pack up for the next town.
Throughout the story, audiences witness all the glamour of the circus through trapeze and ladder artists, jugglers, slack liners and a strong man who juggles bowling bowls and swings a 16-foot pole like it’s a toothpick.
“I wanted to pay tribute to the circus,” Lashua said. “Theater and circus — and even movies — were about a communal experience. There’s something about being swept up in the excitement of the moment that circus does as well, if not better, than any form of entertainment.”